The House He Failed to Build: Clever Blacks and Waywardness

2012-11-06 06:06

Between myth and purpose, lies the noxious obsession with tradition.

The myth is that tradition is a monolithic block incapable of changing, safely sheltered away from critique. The purpose is simple; use the divide-and-rule strategy and become the sole pundit on culture and tradition.

The pundit however, is bad at hiding his true intentions. The fault lines are visible. The pundit ignores the fact that culture is dynamic and ever-changing. Instead the pundit uses culture-talk to serve narrow interests and punt archaic traditionalist views.

President Jacob Zuma is master-pundit of both the myth of culture and the purpose he thinks it presents. Known for his staunch views on tradition, the President makes it no secret that tradition to him is sacrosanct - a holy cow not to be touched.

Zuma’s Clever Blacks

At the opening of House of  Traditional Leaders last Thursday, Zuma decided to devise a new term, now almost-popular on the interwebs -  clever blacks. In the light the existing expressions that describe ‘blacks’ (professional blacks, bad blacks, angry blacks etc), Zuma has certainly added an interesting expression to this list.

“Some Africans who become too clever take a position (where) they become the most eloquent in criticizing themselves about their own traditions and everything.” [sic]

Zuma’s reference to ‘clever’ (blacks) had nothing to do with some black people being too intelligent than others. Entertaining this view would be disingenuous and a gross insult.

Those who harbour the idea that Zuma was referring to black people with ‘substantial education‘are not so clever themselves.

The Emperor from Nkandla can also use sarcasm you know.

Instead, Zuma was making a snide remark at the challenges of modernity and its nasty non-relation it has with the traditionalist views he seems to be in favour of. The context is important, Zuma was responding to the criticism leveled against the bizarre Traditional Courts Bill.

Under this Bill, 34 % South Africans (roughly 18 million South Africans) living in the rural areas will fall under the jurisdiction Tribal Chiefs and Tribal Councils. These Tribal Chiefs and Councils will rule on a variety of matters including civil and criminal matters. The Bill also gives the councils and chiefs the authority to issues penalties, fines and impose sentences.

The African Way?

Any good-South African will tell you that our adored constitution gives due recognition to Customary Law and the role of traditional leaders. The mismatch here is between the recognition of traditional leaders and the lack of admiration they illicit. This year alone, traditional leaders have made several statements that have shock some of us to our cultural-cores.  Who would ever forget King Zwelithini’s remarks on the LGBTI community in January this year?

The ceremonial King of the Zulu people said:

“Traditionally, there were no people who engaged in same sex relationships. There was nothing like that and if you do it, you must know that you are rotten.” [sic]

Or Phatekile Holomisa’s poppycock liners on homosexuality, he seems to think that ‘gay people’ are abnormal Africans who haven’t performed certain cultural beliefs. Holomisa is President of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, which claims to be the ‘sole and authentic representative of the progressive traditional leadership of South Africa’. Progressive clearly means something else for Holomisa.

The Chief himself has had his day on the bigotry soapbox on homosexuality back in 2006. Read: http://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/zuma-provokes-ire-of-homosexuals-1.295239#.UJgcTaON3_Y

There are a range of other comments on the position of women and children, made by traditional leaders that leave us all wondering if they are up for the immense task of making legalistic judgements. The skepticism here is not informed by our disdain for customary law and tradition, but the mistrust that some traditional leaders and their Chief illicit effortlessly.

Skepticism is not un-African and our traditions are not backward either.

The House He Failed To Build

While Chief has managed to build an impressive compound (read: palace if you’re Mac Maharaj), he has failed to build a solid and lateral-thinking House of Traditional Leaders.

The thinking in post-94 South Africa around traditional leaders is one that sets up an unnecessary binary between urban South Africa and rural South Africa. The very Bill that is proposed is based on the apartheid tribal boundaries we have failed to get rid of. Some of the blue-eyed tribal councils he’s in favour of are a creation of draconian apartheid laws which he and many others fought against. Under the hated Bantu Authorities Act; tribal chiefs detained and prosecuted people at their whim.

Who of you remember terrifying stories of the feared Chief Mhinga of the Vawanati Clan in Malamulele, Limpopo? Exercising his apartheid-ordained powers, Chief Mhinga could unilaterally detain you in a cement store room for nights and days.

Even more troubling, are the views and practices some traditional leaders seem to harbour about women.  You don’t need to be a guru of tradition to know that practices like ukuthwala and ukungenwa are contrary to the spirit of our Constitution and challenge the idea of gender equality. Do we know that rural female-farmers are denied their right to land ownership and trade, simply because they are women? The tribal councils decide this too.

The Chief is wrong.

We critique our tradition leaders (and some of our traditional practices) not because we’ve become snobbish clever blacks, but because we know too well that these traditional leaders misrepresent us and our traditions.

It’s their waywardness that is not African.

The reality is that African culture is not monolithic, and no one has a monopoly on what is African or not.

In his speech to the House of Traditional Leaders, Zuma should’ve talked about building a different house. One that is aware that it perpetuates the geography and narrative of apartheid about blacks and their traditions. This irritating narrative makes African tradition and culture a bizarre ‘Did you know’ fact in many university anthropology courses and documentaries.

Yet, we wait for a more thoughtful and lateral-thinking House of Traditional Leaders.

This is the house he has failed to build.

Follow me on Twitter: @SbuTshabs , https://en.twitter.com/SbuTshabs

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